Religion (ain’t) for atheists

I’ve read a couple of favorable reviews of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists. The book sounds absolutely horrible. Seeing as many atheists have had a pretty hard time getting away from religion in the first place, why would they want to backpeddle and inject their lives with religious-type rituals?

…his descriptions of certain rituals, including communion, meditation, the Day of Atonement, and mourning rituals, evoke powerful nostalgia.

Seriously? The Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) evokes in me the taste of bile. This isn’t a joke; I’ve spent more than one joyous day atoning for my sins on the bathroom floor, hunched over a toilet, barfing. The central part of the ritual is fasting, which I find not only abhorrent but unnatural. When I do it, I get sick. So I’m not about to fawn over De Botton’s “descriptions of certain rituals.”

My wife has similarly negative memories of the Catholic rituals she was forced to grow up with. In fact, I think that’s one of the most liberating things about becoming a freethinker – the fact that we’re no longer bound to observe arbitrary traditions. Sure, we all love getting shikker (drunk) with our close friends and family once or twice a year, but I don’t think most non-religious people yearn for ritual in their lives. At least not the way De Botton seems to think.

Here’s another gem from the same review:

“Real freedom does not mean being wholly left to one’s own devices; it should be compatible with being harnessed and guided.”

The reviewer clarifies:

This sounds wonderfully similar to Rabbi Avraham HaKohen Kook’s explanation of the Torah as freedom.

But the Torah isn’t about freedom, not by a long shot. This is exactly the opposite of what the Torah is about, which is obedience to a tribal Jewish law concocted from traditional fairy tales. This sounds disturbingly similar to Catholic prelates pontificating about how Jesus is freedom, and without Him we are slaves.

If this is freedom, I’ll take the slavery of freethought any day.

Archy the Cockroach takes on the Universe

From the incomparable Lives & Times of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis:

the universe and archy
the inspired cockroach
sat and looked at each other

you write so many things
about me that are not true
complained the universe

there are so many things
about you which you seem to be
unconscious of yourself said archy

i contain a number of things
which i am trying to forget
rejoined the universe

such as what asked archy

such as cockroaches and poets
replied the universe

you are wrong contended archy
for it is only by working up
the most important part of yourself
into the form of poets
that you get a product capable
of understanding you at all

you poets were always able
to get the better of me
in argument said the universe
and i think that is one thing
that is the matter with you

if you object to my intellect
retorted archy i can only reply
that i got it from you
as well as anything else
that should make you more humble

Archy was such a freethinking cockroach. Gotta love the little guy!

This country is rotten and it will never change, no matter what

Atheists, non-believers and freethinkers are pissed off across the globe like never before. Just this past week I discovered new freethought websites in Greece,  Cyprus, Uganda and Italy.* I’m now keeping a list, so if you know of any I don’t please send info.

I am pissed off this week because Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini wrote an article which he published in the Osservatore Romano, a Vatican newspaper, attacking atheists as “perverse” and a “threat to society.” I’ve translated the money quote into English so non-Italian readers can see what theocratic bigots are running the roost here:

“Christians also must be able to forge an agreement with Muslims on how to fight those aspects which, like all extremisms, threaten society. I refer to atheism, materialism and relativism. Christians, Muslims and Jews can work together to reach this common objective. I believe it’s time for a new humanism in order to struggle against these perverse phenomena, because only the centrality of the human being is an antidote to fanaticism and intolerance.”

So it’s war he wants, and he’s rallying his homophobic, misogynistic friends at the Vatican against his fellow citizens in a holy alliance which is supposed to include their worst historical enemies, Jews and Muslims. I’m beginning to think we’ve entered a new phase of religious warfare on Earth: it’s no longer going to be Muslims vs. Christians or skirmishes over minor doctrinal differences, but the faithful against the secular. The only thing they can agree on is that non-believers are the enemy (at least they can finally agree on something) of their unfounded truths.

I should point out Frattini’s howler in his call for a new humanism. Is he really unaware of the fact that almost all atheists are humanists? And that faith in the supernatural is by definition not humanism, because it relies on a power outside humanity to solve humanity’s problems? That’s why we call ourselves humanists.

I wrote a short note to President Giorgio Napolitano over at the Quirinale in my best polite Italian, explaining my personal indignation. The UAAR has called for Frattini’s resignation, stating that his ideas are “clearly incompatible with the [Italian] constitution and detrimental to Italy’s international standing” as a “founding member of the European Union.”

But what pisses me off even more are my fellow atheists and secularists – Italian and American – who chide my microscopic efforts. “Why bother? This country is rotten to the core. It won’t change because you wrote an email or posted something angry on your blog.” What should I do, accept that Italy is a Vatican proxy and that I live in a Catholic theocracy? Are these the same people who want me to “accept” that the Tea Partiers mean business and will be ruling the United States in an Evangelical coalition, imposing their God on the rest of us while we kvetch that “it’s pointless to speak out”? The whole point of Gnu Atheism – if you haven’t been listening – is that those days are a distant memory. Non-believers have begun to speak up in unprecedented numbers the world over and they are not going to shut up any time soon.

Go ahead and declare war on us. We’ll continue to send indignant emails, and start blogs and websites dedicated to combating your superstition, ignorance and contempt for reason. And, in the fullness of time (we can cite the Bible, too, guys) we will win this battle. One blog at a time.

* The hat tip goes to PZ Myers, who is tracking the global spread of freethought websites daily at Pharyngula.

The New Hypatia

– for Ayaan Hirsi Ali


There once was a actress named Weisz
whose bashful, compassionate eyes
inspired us to rate
her Hypatia as great
and to weep when the heroine dies.


What little we know of her life
is bound up in trouble and strife
of an era in which
they thought her a witch
because she was nobody’s wife.


Neither Christian nor pagan nor Jew
she was one of the relative few
who today we would call
a freethinker, et al.
then degrade in the New York Review.*

* of Books

Meme this: if you like these limericks, you can help create a meme. Pass them around on the internet. Hopefully they will reach Rachel Weisz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali! Remeber, this is an experiment.

How? Be imaginative. Post a comment on Pharyngula, or Dawkins coined the word “meme.” Send it to your atheist cousin, or uncle.

What’s a meme? Anything that can be passed from one brain to another. If you wish to know more about the obscure reference to the NYRB, just google “Enlightenment fundamentalist.”

If you haven’t seen Agora, check Wikipedia for the basic outline of Hypatia of Alexandria’s life. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has lived with bodyguards and armed escorts for years because of her freethinking views. She was born in Somalia.


It has been wryly suggested that Agora, the recent film about Hypatia of Alexandria, was a kind of religious film turned on its head. “St. Hypatia, murdered by oyster shell,” was one version I heard. Well, the film has no oyster shells, but I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it. If freethinkers have saints – which I surmise they don’t –  Hypatia would be one. But, like I said, there are no saints of freethought.

The Hypatia portrayed in the film is wise, compassionate, restless, moderate in all things save intellectual fire. She is not a “pagan” in the sense that she is not given over to worshipping statues and whatever deities the Alexandrian Christians of her day were out to topple. She was a sect of one. Like Thomas Paine, her church was her own mind.

“You cannot question what you believe; I must.” That is the motto of the freethinker. Whether or not the historical Hypatia was indeed such a person may never be known. We do know that she was a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. But what I find interesting is that a major historical epic chose to promote a freethinking “saint.” Was this a belated answer to Mel Gibson?

Agora could not, to my mind, have been made ten years ago. A secular renaissance was necessary in order for a big-budget movie to take such a rationalist stance against religious fervor and the pitfalls of pious politics. Indeed, the Christian mob charged with Hypatia’s murder overtly resembles the Taliban. That’s no accident.

Was Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia improbably chaste? She was a bit too perfect, as if the director felt the need for a freethinking Madonna. She could’ve used at least one good temper tantrum, considering that her beloved city and her entire culture was collapsing at her feet.

You Don’t Need God To Be Jewish

Are you there, God? Its me, Yehudis.
Are you there, God? It's me, Yehudis.

This is the topic of much debate when Jews decide they don’t believe in God. Can’t Jews be atheists, non-theists or anti-theists? Is there a discriminatory principle according to which Jews cannot not believe in a supernatural power, just like Jews once could not own property or hold certain jobs? Don’t Jews have absolute liberty of thought like everyone else?

Most people would say yes, of course they do, but once they stop believing in God (if they ever did) they thereby stop being Jews. Baloney. Here’s an example of what I’m trying to convey:

I’m on vacation in Virginia, where I went to college. Whenever I’m in the States I watch a good amount of television in order to tap back into the lifeblood of my countrymen and women. My sister’s television has six-hundred channels, and when I get tired of giggling at Fox News and ogling the Food Network I go channel surfing until I hit the Good News stations. Every evening I watch as faith healers knock down their congregations in the spirit of Jesus, heal blindness, exorcise demons and rearrange human bones in living bodies–all on television. Of course, I don’t believe a word of it, and neither should you. Tonight I even heard a preacher tell the devil to leave his congregation’s bank accounts alone. No shit. This is unbelievable stuff–not the least bit supernatural, but still kind of incredible.

There’s even a Jewish life channel (called, imaginatively, Jewish Life). By the above-stated rule that Jews are defined by their belief in a supernatural God (curiously, not the same one that defines Christians and Muslims), one would expect Jewish Life to be full of programs about Hasidism, Kabbalah, Talmud-Torah, or whatever might interest Jewish believers. Well, tonight I jotted down what they broadcasted in the three-or-so hours I was watching while flipping back and forth between the televangelists. Here’s what I saw: a concert clip by Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi, a documentary on Birobidzhan, an endorsement for a Jewish outreach network, and some arbitrary footage of Israeli life: windsurfing on Lake Kinneret, Tel Aviv by night, Masada and people walking, praying and looking generally suspicious in Jerusalem. Add to this last night’s documentary on the Exodus (the ship, not the book), and so far not a measly mention of the man upstairs on an entirely Jewish television network.

I don’t wish to make prophecies. I don’t know if the Jewish people can survive the next three-thousand years if they were all miraculously to go secular. Then again, I don’t know if any of us will survive that long. I doubt such a scenario is possible–though it may be desirable. I am making a case in the here and now for the Jews as a people with a very complex historical identity, of which the Jewish religion plays a significant–but not dominant–role.

You don’t need God to be Jewish.